The Cambridge English dictionary defines accountability as
It is a fundamental management tenant that organisations need to have a culture in which there is clear accountability. So why is it that it is the most shirked responsibility among executives, and almost half are rated as not holding staff accountable enough when they don’t deliver (Overfield and Kaiser 2012).
Accountability is a tricky business. Many managers don’t wish to be the bad guy; they want to be seen as “one of the guys” and can be more focussed on managing their popularity than they are managing their team. But being popular means managers can avoid implementing accountability within their organisations, preferring to maintain their reputation over creating cultures that set standards and hold people accountable for their actions.
A big reason sales mangers avoid that accountability is that it is commonly associated with punishment, that holding people accountable for their actions can only harm relationships between the sales manager and their team.
Ther are four common myths that managers buy into when it comes to implementing an accountability program.
Myth 1. The “Big Brother” Myth
The big brother myth is submitting to the perception that an accountability framework is micromanagement of the team. We’d all agree that no likes to micromanagement. It’s demotivating and belittling, and usually the province of insecure or ill-equipped managers, or those who have fundamental trust issues. I also think its maybe a looking glass effect – the manager secretly knows how they have behaved in the past, and doesn’t want that behaviour in their team.
Given that you can manage a good accountability program can in about 20 minutes per week per sales report, the micromanagement myth doesn’t stand up to the light of reality.
Real causes of the perpetuation of this myth are two-fold.
First, the manager has a high need for approval from their team. Need for approval is common where “getting along” is seen as a good career development strategy. Managing “happy go lucky” people, is more comfortable than managing a strong performance because it means that there will be a need for oversight and potential intervention. It implies that behavioural standards will need to be agreed and set, and then people held to delivering on those accepted behaviours.
The second issue is that salespeople complain that following an accountability programme will somehow affect their sales performance, that it is in effect just a box-ticking exercise and additional paperwork to please the manager and take up too much time.
Interestingly, an accountability program that based on agreed behaviours can reveal the fundamental performance level of the members of the sales team.
When sales professionals are held accountable for activities, rather than just outputs, those individuals who are coasting along, the “FreeRiders” taking orders will be exposed. Accountability can change how we see the performance levels of team members. Historical performance and tenure can no longer act as a smokescreen for sales outcomes, and this can be an uncomfortable reality for some and explains their reluctance to be involved with an accountability framework.
Myth 2. The “too much time” myth.
This myth is propagated by managers as much as their teams, as managers frequently have little time to focus due to many competing needs.
As a result, sales reps resent the accountability framework and managers are happy to continue to “firefight” and tactically coach their people, one problem at a time. Firefighting suits many managers, as solving problems and providing the magic solution to sales challenges is much more fulfilling than being remote from where the action is. This approach also keeps the sales manager in a position where they are needed and central to ongoing success. They want the dependency of their team because it feels good to be able to “rescue” a deal, rather than have a sales report effectively manage it for themselves.
Investing time in the team, in part through an accountability framework, actually releases more time as it helps salespeople develop their competence and independence. Still, the fact of the matter is this can be threatening to newer or less competent managers.
Myth 3. The “Veteran Team” myth.
The presence of veterans is probably the most common push-back against implementing an accountability programme. The typical response is that “my team is full of veterans, and they don’t need to be held accountable”.
Hamish Knox points out to fears that underpin this belief.
First, senior team members might leave and second, an accountability framework will reveal that their veterans are far from the high performers they believe they are. Some may be ineffective at what they do.
A vital issue is that veteran salespeople often have complicated relationships both inside and outside the organisation. These can make it hard for a manager to separate the personal connection from the individuals’ performance. However, if the manager used objective measures, based in winning behaviours, rather than focussing on the presumption of customer relationships, the real performance of the individual can be evaluated.
To evaluate if your top performers’ activities align with your sales strategy, write down the top three behaviours that you understand to be essential for high performance.
Then ask the team members to do the same.
Frequently, the results will be very different. The reason behind the difference is that individual performers have developed their system for selling in the marketplace. These systems are often opaque, inefficient and at worst irrelevant to your current situation.
Unfortunately for managers looking at implementing accountability, its often the veterans who complain the most and the loudest. They usually have developed the understanding over time that accountability programs, like many other tools, are frequently a “here today, gone tomorrow” part of organisational life. They know that if they grumble enough, or refuse to engage, then the initiative will be forgotten, and they can go back to business as usual, which is what accountability programs should address.
A final point on veterans, it can be tempting to exclude veterans from accountability initiatives, the thinking is that they are great at what they do and don’t need supervision. The problem here is that the rest of your team will resent their “free pass” and will reject the process as divisive and unfair. It would be best if you treated everyone equally when it comes to accountability, or it is doomed to failure.
Myth 4. The “They’ll leave myth”.
Churn in a sales team is understandably a massive worry for sales managers. People who leave take their relationships and industry knowledge with them, maybe to the competition. Potential churn is a frequent reason that sales managers avoid accountability programs.
The truth is that an accountability program is likely to make some salespeople revaluate their position and leave; this is an unavoidable part of business life. The good news is that the people who leave would probably have gone at some point regardless, or have mentally “checked-out” of the business and have been freeloading off everyone else’s hard work. I knew a company that has a senior sales rep leave, and while their territory was empty, sales increased, a harsh lesson in the cost of retaining poor performers.
The flip side of the churn is that for those who remain, morale and productivity often increases. This positive effect is the outcome of the exit of the “bad seeds” from the sales team. Freeriders usually take a great deal more than they give to team performance. They freely use their colleagues time, goodwill and initiative, along with an unfair share of organisational resources but offer little in return which is frustrating, unjust and a source of discontent in the rest of the organisation.
Accountability programmes have an additional benefit of being a great leveller. Holding all team members accountable, without prejudice or favour, is a liberating experience for many. Being evaluated on your efforts and merits, within an agreed framework, helps individuals been seen and assessed on their contribution. Meritocracy is empowering when you have been the subject of a system that fosters favouritism.
A final note.
Its interest to note that top performers, real top performers don’t fear accountability if the initiative is constructed and launched in the right way. Top performers liked to be recognised for what they are and can see accountability as a tool to improve and to demonstrate that their status is justified. It is the fake top performers, those that talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk, that have the most objections, because they have the most to lose if their true nature is exposed.
For more on Accountability the Sandler way - see Hamish Knox book "Accountability the Sandler way" - you can find it here on Amazon.
Overfield and Kaiser - One out of two managers is terrible at accountability - HBR
If you'd like to know more about raising the game of your sales team - follow me on LinkedIn. Mike Guest